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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Red-Blue game highlights Wildcats versatility

Rebecca Noble / The Daily Wildca
Arizona guard Kobi Simmons (2) soars up to the basket in the slam dunk contest during the slam dunk contest before the red and blue scrimmage at McKale Center on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016.

This year’s McDonald’s Red-Blue Game is a wrap, and the next time the Arizona Wildcats take the floor in McKale Center will be for a pair of exhibition games before facing Michigan State in Honolulu to kick off the college basketball season. Arizona fans will be tuned in to see the new-look Wildcats when Arizona travels to face the Spartans on Nov. 11. 

While the on-court battle in the Red-Blue Game does not generate the same intensity level that a regular game typically produces, there are still some important takeaways from the scrimmage. 

This year’s point guard situation should be an improvement from last season. Kadeem Allen was the primary point guard while Parker Jackson-Cartwright backed him up in 2015-2016. 

Jackson-Cartwright was one of the best players on the floor during the Red-Blue Game, and looks poised to be the starting point guard this season. Head coach Sean Miller has been pleased with his progress since the shifty guard  arrived in Tucson two years ago.

“He’s really gotten better, I think that’s very obvious to see,” Miller said. “He’s stronger, faster, more sure of himself and he’s one of the many things that I’m really excited about [this year].” 

Freshman guard Kobi Simmons played point guard opposite Jackson-Cartwright, and Miller hinted there has been a learning curve for the five-star recruit.  

“It’s tough to judge Kobi right now because we’re asking him to play two positions,” Miller said. “One of which is the point guard and there’s more of an upside to that. But right now, he’s not going to look as good playing this game as he otherwise would have.” 

With that said, Simmons has proved he is one of the best athletes on the team. If he can improve throughout the season, it gives the Wildcats the opportunity to let Allen loose. 

Allen is more comfortable playing off the ball, and did so for most of the Red-Blue Game. He finished with 14 points on 12 shots—the most taken by anyone in the game. 

Allen averaged 25.9 points per game in his final season at Hutchinson Community College en route to being named the JUCO Player of the Year before transferring to Arizona two years ago. He is the only senior on the team, and Arizona will lean on him as its leader this year.

“He’s waited his turn, he’s paid his dues and he’s had a really good offseason,” Miller said. “He’s mature, he’s older, and we need him to be a really good player for us for sure.”

The Wildcats’ biggest strength this season will be their versatility. The rotation this season is loaded with players who can effectively play two to three different positions. Freshman Rawle Alkins will see most of his time come at the small forward spot, but he can play shooting guard because of his athleticism and scoring ability. Alkins scored most of his points at the rim Friday night. 

Allen can, of course, play the point guard if necessary, along with playing off the ball. Sophomore Allonzo Trier will get minutes at small forward, but will primarily play at guard. 

Ray Smith is athletic enough to cover smaller wing players at small forward, and big enough to play power forward. Miller is hoping Smith can stay healthy and come back as strong as he was before his two ACL surgeries. 

“I’ve already seen him over the last three or four weeks make tremendous gains,” Miller said. “I’m excited to continue to watch him. Hopefully he stays injury free.”

Dusan Ristic will likely start at center, but he’s a good enough scorer to play the four-spot if Miller ever wanted to have Ristic and sophomore center Chance Comanche on the floor at the same time. 

Finally, freshman Lauri Markkanen can play  the four, five or even the three, and he showed that versatility Friday night. Markkanen was the star of the Red-Blue Game, putting up 14 points and seven boards on a 4-of-7 shooting night. Markkanen showed off a calm, silky jump shot and looked poised playing in front of the McKale Center crowd.

“You know, Lauri had 14 points and seven rebounds and I think that’s pretty much to be expected from him,” Miller said. “As our offense smooths out, there are so many things that Lauri can do. He’s not 6-foot-8, Lauri is 7-foot and he’s not slow, he can move. We’re excited to have him.”

Versatility will be a buzz word for the Wildcats all season. Miller will experiment early on with some of his new faces to see where they best fit. Markkanen will start at power forward, but could see time at center when Miller really wants to spread the floor. Expect to see a lot of backcourt variations early on this season. 

One of the Achilles’ heels for the Wildcats over the past few seasons has been the 3-point shot. This year may be more of the same. Both teams in the Red-Blue Game combined to go 5-for-19 from beyond the arc and there may not be a go-to shooter like York provided the Wildcats last season. 

Jackson-Cartwright shot 37.5 percent from the 3-point line last year—the best mark for any returning player—but will have an increased workload this season, which could affect his efficiency. Markkanen will help give the frontcourt the 3-point dimension it has lacked in the past few seasons, but will be most effective playing the pick-and-roll game.  

Arizona finished second in the country in defensive efficiency in 2013-2014. The Wildcats finished fourth in 2014-2015 but fell all the way to 29th last season.

      Related: Wildcats give glimpse of future in more ways than one at Red-Blue game.

Defense is the cornerstone of Miller’s program, and there was a noticeable drop-off last season. Granted, those two teams that made it to the Elite Eight had defensive specialists like T.J. McConnell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but this Arizona team needs to finish better than 29th in the country to contend for a deep run. 

Kaleb Tarczewski was the anchor for those teams, and out of the trio of Markkanen, Ristic and Comanche, someone will have to step up to protect the rim. 

It could take a while for this team to gel. There won’t be anywhere to hide when it comes time to play Michigan State, and it will be an early test for the Wildcats. This team has the right pieces in the right places to make a deep run in March, but those pieces are mostly new faces. 

If Arizona can find its identity and develop its  freshman in time, the Wildcats could aspire to party like its 1997 come March.   

Follow Christopher Deak on Twitter.

Video courtesy of Pac-12 Networks and HutchBlueDragons via Youtube.

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